What I've Been Reading in February
I read so many awesome books this month - highly recommended books virtually guaranteed to broaden my perspective and help me grow! - that I wanted to start with a colossal THANK YOU to everyone that contributed to the Brilliant Books for Black History Month list.
Every single page I turned, every light bulb moment I had, every puzzle piece that slid into place was all because of you.
My choices this month were a carefully coordinated combination of what was available via my local library & used book store + The Classics Community selection for February (Check it out as a one-time purchase here.) with a smattering of Kindle and a little help by way of Audible.
So, are you eager to see What I've Been Reading in February? Let's get to it.
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
Kathleen Grissom's The Kitchen House was the book that was most recommended, so I was excited to discover that my library had a copy available for checkout this month. The book traces the fictionalized history of one southern plantation through two generations of ownership, highlighting topics that specifically related to the novels two main characters:
- Lavinia - an orphaned white indentured servant from Ireland that came to live on the plantation as a young child and was raised in the Kitchen House among the slaves whom she immediately began to love as family
- Belle - the beloved daughter of the plantation owner and one of his black slaves, who died before the events in the book; in happier times, Belle spent her childhood in the "big house" enjoying the benefits of education and love until her father remarried and she was sent to work & live in the kitchen house
The story follows the lives of the two women, both comparing and contrasting each woman's life of servitude, which I found compelling. In addition, I was fascinated by other aspects of southern living during slavery that I have seldom pondered before, like the complicated concepts of family in the slave-economy of the south (both the one you are born into, as well as the ones you create); love & relationships; the advancement of women as a whole; and the impact we have in the lives of those around us.
This had a similar feel to me of Octavia Butler's Kindred, so if you enjoyed that gem, you will love Grissom's The Kitchen House.
The Personal History of Rachel Dupree by Ann Weisgarber
I am a lover of Little House. I enjoyed the television series starring Michael Landon as a kid - and again with my own kids! We relished the Little House series during family read-alouds while our children were growing up - twice even! All of my kids at some point dressed in prairie attire as their everyday clothing. Pioneer America is the time and place I would choose to visit first if I had access to a time machine. I just dig it. That is why when I discovered that The Personal History of Rachel DuPree was set in the same time period, I was all in. If you (like me) have a romanticized version of Little House on the Prairie, of going west, of living the life of a settler on the prairie, this book will nip that in the bud. I found The Personal History of Rachel DuPree (written as a series of flashbacks as Rachel struggled in her present life to deal with the choices she made in the past and their potential impact on the future of her children) is NOT a fun prairie narrative. It is a cautionary tale of the importance of good communication, especially in marriage. It is a novel that tackles tough topics like prejudice in a surprising new way. It is a book that deals with the cost of the decisions we make and the consequences those decisions have on others in the future. I believe The Personal History of Rachel DuPree was a worthwhile read, but if you are seeking the escape of a fun prairie narrative (as I was), keep searching. This is not that book.
Passing by Nella Larsen
I read Passing for the first time last year as I was researching upcoming novels to read inside The Classics Community in 2022. I reread it this month because the topic was so fascinating to me that I felt it warranted a reread. And I was right. Nella Larsen's 1929 novel compares and contrasts the lives of 3 African-American women - all light of color enough to pass as white in their everyday lives.
One does just that, marrying a racist white man who does not know she is passing.
One does not, marrying an African-American doctor and living the American dream as a prosperous black family.
One serves as a hybrid of the two positions, married to a white man, but living the life of an interracial couple openly.
I found the lives each woman led intriguing, their marriages so alike even as they differed, and the prejudices held even within one's own race gripping - especially upon reread.
The sweet icing on Nella Larsen's cake is the awesome surprise ending.
Who doesn't love those?
The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate
Lisa WIngate's book The Book of Lost Friends was an easy sell for me simply because I absolutely loved Before We Were Yours. Sometimes you just connect with an author so well that you eagerly pick up what they drop without even bothering to read the back to see what the topic will be. (Who am I kidding? I seldom bother to read the back of the book. I mostly read based off of recommendations and I am elated that you recommended The Book of Lost Friends.)
This novel follows the two timelines - one set during slavery, the other during the 1980s - of a community in the deep south. Wingate weaves the tales like a beautiful tapestry, developing the connections we share both with one another and with our collective pasts in the context of this rural community. I think I can accurately summarize The Book of Lost Friends as part Uncle Tom's Cabin, part Huck Finn, part Passing, part Kindred - like presenting a masterfully created mashup of the best parts of these beloved novels.
Fun. Informative. Full of feeling.
The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
The Personal Librarian was nothing short of amazing! It contained conflict, identity crisis, complicated family relationships, struggle, overcoming...all wrapped in a relatable & flawed main character that the reader roots for from the introduction all the way through to the historical notes at the end.
The Personal Librarian is a fictionalized account of the real-life librarian of J.P. Morgan (Belle da Costa Green), a woman of color that lived not only a life passing as white, but a woman who was revered in her male-dominated field during the Gilded Age. And she did it with impressive style and in heels, no less!
The Personal Librarian, I believe, pairs well with Nella Larsen's Passing because each highlights different aspects of the topic of passing and its ramifications both personally and societally. Additionally, I think every reader will appreciate the attention to detail the authors employed to anchor the story in real-life elements (like the sinking of the Titanic), which help to ground the novel in a readily familiar historical context.
If you're looking for a novel that all women - regardless of color - can rally around, it is the inspiring life of Ms. Belle da Costa Green as told in The Personal Librarian.
Cane River by Lalita Tademy
Like The Kitchen House, Cane River was another novel from the Brilliant Books for Black History Month list that was one of the most recommended and a few pages into it, you easily understand why. Set in south Louisiana, the novel traces the history of the author's family, generation by generation, from slavery to blessed freedom. The novels voice is very personal, almost like a love letter to who the author is and where she came from which I found absolutely beautiful. The author, while not glossing over the less savory aspects of our nation's history, wrote a truly enlightening novel, sharing real tragedy and the breadth of the human experience without abusing the reader in the process. (Think: Indian-American filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan's movies which show just enough to know what is happening without exposing the moviegoer to the full picture.)
If you are amazed by strong, black women and the sacrifices they make for their children's futures, or marvel at their determination in the face of overwhelming odds, this novel is for you.
If you want to read a real "overcomer" book, this novel is for you.
If you need a healthy dose of perspective, this book is for you.
The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story by Nikole Hannah-Jones
Remember when I shared in January that I read a book that was completely different than I had thought it would be? Oops. I did it again with The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story - a book I mistakenly thought (because of the subtitle) was a fictionalized alternate history book. You know, Historical Sci-Fi.
I quickly shifted mental gears and buckled up to really listen to what the author wanted to say to me and while I was disappointed that The 1619 Project was not the book I thought it was, I am not disappointed that I read it and here's why:
I agree that history is written by the winners.
What I mean by that is, like the author, I believe that what we have been taught as historical fact is not 100% historically accurate. I believe history and the historical account we learned in school often swung heavily in one direction, and that direction was the one in which those in charge (ie "the winners") chose for it to swing. In other words, it shared the facts of history, but not all of the facts of history. Similarly to modern-day social media, history has been taught to us with its best foot forward and The 1619 Project sought to shed light on the other foot.
Just the other foot.
I recommend the book only to the most discerning readers because if you choose to read it, thinking you will get a more accurate account of history, you will be as wrong as I was in initially thinking it was a fictionalized alternate history. If you can take what you've been taught and combine it with what The 1619 Project shares, then I think you'll end up with something that is closer to the truth than either side of the divide would want to admit.
The 1619 Project is a heavy read, somewhat eye-opening, and not for everyone.
Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston
I was completely on the fence with which book I wanted to end the month reading, so when Miriyha Davis mentioned Barracoon during Pretty Literate Live, I downloaded a copy from Kindle that week. While chatting with Miriyha on Galentine's Day, I realized that most of the slave narratives we have (or that I have read) begin with the characters already enslaved. Barracoon is distinctly different in that its central character (real-life Cudjo Lewis, one of the last enslaved Africans brought illegally into the United States aboard the last slave ship, Clotilda) begins as a free man in his homeland of Africa and becomes enslaved through inter-tribal rivalry. The book chronicles Mr. Lewis' journey from free man to slave to free again, and the uphill struggle he endured all along the way. It was heartbreaking and tender and inspirational and hard to read, but that's why I was glad I read it.
If you have wondered about the slave trade on the other side of the pond, let Barracoon educate you.
What did you read this month?
Let's connect over our love of literature. Share your recommended titles in the comments along with your thoughts on any of the books that I read this month.